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Peoples Under Threat 2019: The role of social media in exacerbating violence

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The use of social media by repressive states and extremist groups is adding directly to the threats faced by some of the world’s most vulnerable populations and can exacerbate violence where atrocities have occurred or risk transpiring, according to new data analysis by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights.

The analysis, known as the Peoples under Threat index, uses authoritative indicators to identify those countries around the world most at risk of genocide, mass killing or systematic violent repression. This year’s index draws attention to the numerous instances where social media is being used in an organized way to disseminate hate and incite killing.

‘Unequal access to modern technology by way of social media creates an accelerated process through which hate and xenophobia can spread,’ says Joshua Castellino, MRG’s Executive Director. ‘The immediacy of the medium facilitates opinion without need for context or nuance. The sensationalist nature of some of these communications, designed to shock and awe, inevitably aids their spread.’

Syria, where social media platforms are used actively by all sides in the war, heads this year’s Peoples under Threat index. The power of hashtags persists in Syria, where supporters of President Bashar al-Assad popularized a #SyriaHoax hashtag on Twitter to discredit the overwhelming evidence of horrific chemical attacks on civilian targets. Numerous videos uploaded to YouTube by many parties to the conflict have received hundreds of millions of views, leading the Syrian conflict to be dubbed the ‘social media war’.

Somalia maintains its position behind Syria in the index. As it relates to social media, Al-Shabaab has been known to use Twitter and Facebook as propaganda and recruitment tools in an environment where mobile phone use has steadily risen in recent years.

Afghanistan is among those states where threat levels have increased this year. The civilian death toll in Afghanistan reached an all-time annual high in 2018, with 3,804 killed and another 7,189 injured. Government-controlled territory also shrank to its lowest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. To mitigate this discouraging picture, the Afghan Ministry of Defense publishes daily figures of Taliban fighters who are killed or captured to its Twitter feed. The Taliban, in turn, widely uses WhatsApp and Twitter to recruit, plan, fundraise and claim responsibility for its attacks.

Myanmar is a stark example of the link between social media and the commission of atrocities. In this instance, dehumanizing language and outright incitement to mass murder was amplified via Facebook and Twitter, contributing to the widespread targeting of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Iraq remains vulnerable to outbreaks of violence, and during its most intense and violent repression of minority communities, ISIS used the Twitter hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS to publicise its atrocities. While the hashtag has recently lost much of its currency, its deliberate use demonstrates how social media has become an important conduit for spreading hate and fear.

The threat level has also risen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as the country now holds more than 5 million displaced people within its borders and represents the largest displacement crisis on the African continent. Authorities in Kinshasa have engineered internet and social media bans to assist in denials of government mismanagement and insecurity.

’In country after country, social media platforms are now being used to spread hate, recruit the killers, and organize mass killing,’ said Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. ‘For years we have thought of social media as the friend of civil society, but it is now being used against them on an unprecedented scale.’

India is among the highest risers this year, moving up 16 places in the Peoples Under Threat Index in 2018. Violence has been escalating in Kashmir since 2016 when a separatist commander with a major social media following among Kashmiris was killed. With increased militarisation by the government, 2018 saw the highest death toll in the region in a decade, along with greater coooperation between several Islamist separatist groups. Meanwhile, across India, it is important to note that social media has played a significant role in advancing Hindu nationalism and intolerance towards minorities and perceived outsiders in the lead-up to the 2019 general elections. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supporters and ‘bots’ ratcheted up the production of inflammatory, anti-Muslim messaging. The BJP’s president Amit Shah called Bangladeshi migrants ‘termites’, and the party’s Twitter account echoed his words. The BJP won the election returning Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power with a renewed mandate. However, in the few days since the BJP’s victory, Muslims have already been targeted by numerous hate attacks.

Cameroon has also leapt up the index amid escalating political violence. Peaceful demonstrations in 2016 against decades of political and economic marginalization of the country’s Anglophone regions by the largely French-speaking government led to a separatist movement for an independent state. Facing prolonged internet shutdowns and scant international attention, protestors, and later separatists, have relied heavily on Twitter hashtags to mobilize. President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, even labelled social media used by separatists ‘a new form of terrorism’. Meanwhile, Boko Haram attacks persist in the far north, adding to the growing numbers of internally displaced and deepening the humanitarian crisis.

‘Regulating hate and false news is an imperative, with collective responsibility: of technology companies, states and politicians, but also of a responsible civil society and general population’, says Castellino. ‘Failures, as this report demonstrates, increase the threats that vulnerable communities face, which becomes ever more acute in a context of heightened competition for limited resources.’

Social media promises to increasingly influence how violence is perceived or responded to. Upheaval and conflict can no longer be dislocated from the use of social media by an array of actors. It is also important, however, to consider how these expansive communication tools can be equally used to mitigate hate and combat the spread of misinformation.

This is the 14th year that the Peoples under Threat index has been released by MRG, joined now by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. It is based on indicators from authoritative sources and continues to provide early warnings of potential mass atrocities.

 

Notes to editors

  • Visit MRG’s online map which visualizes data from Peoples under Threat. View the map by year or by country, and find links to reports, press releases and further information on the communities under threat.
  • Download the full Peoples under Threat 2019 briefing.
  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is the leading international human rights organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.
  • The Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights is an international initiative to develop civilian-led monitoring of violations of international humanitarian law or human rights; to secure accountability and reparation for those violations; and to develop the practice of civilian rights.

Interview opportunities:

  • Joshua Castellino, Executive Director, Minority Rights Group International (London, UK)
  • Mark Lattimer, Executive Director, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights (London, UK)
  • Minority representatives from Syria, Somalia, Iraq, DRC and other countries featured in the index.

For more information or to arrange interviews please contact:

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